William Hardman Poteat was born in Kaifeng, Honan, China, on April 19, 1919, to Baptist missionary parents, Edwin MacNeill Poteat Jr. and Wilda Hardman Poteat.
His father later served as president of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School and twice as minister of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. His grandfather, Edwin MacNeill Poteat, Sr., was president of Furman University and his great-uncle, Dr. William Louis (Billy) Poteat, was a legendary president of what is now Wake Forest University in the 1920s. His great-aunt, Ida Poteat, was head of the Art Department at Meredith College.
Poteat spent the first ten years of his life in China, where his two younger siblings Elisabeth and Haley were also born. He completed his high school education in Raleigh, NC, in 1937. He pursued undergraduate study at Oberlin College where he earned a BA degree with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1941. From there he went to Yale Divinity School, receiving a BD (equivalent to today’s MDiv) in 1944. His primary mentor at Yale was the Christian theologian H. Richard Niebuhr.
In 1943 he married Marian K. Kelley, also a student from Oberlin two years behind him. Poteat and his wife moved to Chapel Hill, NC, in the summer of 1944, where William had been hired as General Secretary of the YMCA, a capacity in which he served for three years. At the time the Chapel Hill YMCA was a center for Christian fellowship and a hub of political and intellectual activity for UNC students. While there, he was asked to teach a couple of courses in the Philosophy Department at UNC, which soon became quite popular—so much so that Poteat was hired to teach philosophy as a full-time Instructor in 1947.
In 1955, having risen to the rank of Associate Professor, he received an Outstanding Teacher award. He was for several years one of UNC’s most popular philosophy teachers until he left in 1957. In 1956-57, Carolina students launched a campaign (unsuccessful) to make him UNC Chancellor.
When Poteat was at Yale Divinity School he took some graduate courses in the Philosophy Department and there became a good friend of Robert Cushman, an aspiring Plato scholar. Cushman was later hired by Duke University in Durham, NC, in close proximity to UNC at Chapel Hill, to build at Duke an academic PhD program in Religion.
Initially Poteat had intended to return to Yale to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but several factors led him to remain in North Carolina. He and Marian had two children close together at this time and Cushman’s launching of the PhD program at Duke made it attractive.
While teaching philosophy full-time in mornings at UNC, Poteat took afternoon graduate coursework at Duke in 1947. As a graduate student, he was appointed a Gurney Harris Kearns Fellow and a Kent Fellow in 1949.
Poteat completed his Duke PhD in 1951, with a dissertation entitled Pascal and Modern Sensibility, which he claimed to have written in 90 days during the Summer of 1950. His oral defense of the dissertation took place on November 15, 1950.
He later was to claim of his dissertation that he “was thus well begun by this early essay in becoming a post-critical thinker.” It was here that his lifelong intellectual agenda was set: Though the dissertation was ostensibly about Pascal, it was really about what Pascal sought to be about—namely, identifying, combating, and overcoming the self-abstracting, self-alienating, person-occluding tendencies inherent in modern modes of reflection from the Renaissance forward but particularly of the sort epitomized in Descartes.
In the early 1950s he joined the Episcopal Church, in which he remained a member in good standing for the remainder of his life. In 1955 Poteat traveled to England to speak and participate in a Student Christian Conference at Oxford, and again in 1957. This provided him with the opportunity to travel to Manchester University for his first meeting (in 1955) with scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi, beginning a life-long personal and professional relationship cherished by both men. This relationship was to shape much of the course of Poteat’s subsequent thinking and research.
From Polanyi he received and immediately began reading a typescript of Polanyi’s Gifford Lectures (1951-52), that was to be revised and later published as Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958). He had earlier first encountered Polanyi’s writing in 1952—specifically, “The Stability of Beliefs,” in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, which essay was incorporated in Personal Knowledge. Poteat later speaks of this initial encounter with Polanyi’s work as having “accredited and greatly enriched the context within which initially to obey my own intimations.”
Between 1957 and 1960, Poteat taught for three years at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest at Austin, TX. Having been professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, he was asked to develop courses in Christianity and Culture for the seminary, specifically courses in Philosophical Theology and Christian Criticism.[i]
In 1960, Poteat joined the faculty of Duke University Divinity School as Associate Professor of Christianity and Culture.
As did several other members of Duke’s Divinity School faculty, he regularly taught academic graduate courses in Duke’s Department of Religion, including regular seminars in Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge. During these years he arranged for Polanyi to give the Duke Lectures (’64-’65), entitled “Man in Thought.” Poteat was also a participant in the Study Group on Foundations of Cultural Unity in August 1965 and August 1966 held at Bowdoin College, MA, organized by Edward Pols, Michael Polanyi, and Marjorie Grene. (Participants included Elizabeth Sewell, John Silber, Iris Murdoch, Charles Taylor, and of course Polanyi, Grene, and Pols).
In the Summer of 1968, he and his colleague, Thomas A. Langford, completed their editorial work on Intellect and Hope: Essays in the Thought of Michael Polanyi, published that year by Duke University Press for the Lilly Endowment Research Program in Christianity and Politics. This book, a festschrift, was the first book-length, serious, interdisciplinary discussion of Polanyi’s philosophical work by major scholars in the US and Europe. In 1962, Poteat went to Oxford University again, this time for a semester as Senior Fellow at Merton College.
In 1968, Poteat transferred from the Divinity School to teach full time in Duke’s Department of Religion as Professor of Religion and Comparative Studies. This enabled him to concentrate more on teaching graduate seminars and directing doctoral theses. It also enabled him to teach a course to undergraduates each semester until his retirement in 1987.
In 1969 he was named a member of the National Humanities Faculty. He served as head of the Department of Religion from 1972 to 1978.
After a separation and divorce from his first wife, he married Patricia Lewis in 1980. During Fall Semester 1968, Poteat went to Greece (principally Athens) for a sabbatical.
Soon after his arrival in Athens, he happened to encounter the art and subsequently the person of Greek sculptor Evangelos Moustakas, which occasioned a profound reformation of his thinking about a great many things and completely disrupted his sabbatical plans. This was not a result of Poteat stepping outside his specialty into a new discipline and medium, as he had long been pursuing serious study of visual art, drama, and literature, and regularly incorporating it into his teaching.
He later characterized this encounter as “an Orphic dismemberment. The intellectual categories upon which I had relied no longer fit. My whole being—my mindbodily being—was riven.”
Moustakas was recognized by Poteat to be an artist of the very highest caliber, whose vibrant roots in Greek culture and mythology seemed to Poteat’s sensibility completely free of the influence of Renaissance-Reformation-Enlightenment that he believed had so desiccated Western Art.
The culmination of the transformation in Poteat’s thinking begun with the 1968 sabbatical (and an account of it) reached expression in his book, Polanyian Meditations: Toward a Post-Critical Logic (1985).
In his retirement Poteat continued to supervise a few PhD students and to write and publish two books: A Philosophical Daybook: Post-Critical Investigations (1990) and Recovering the Ground: Critical Exercises in Recollection (1994).
In 1993, two former students, James M. Nickell and James W. Stines, edited and provided an introduction to a collection of 23 of Poteat’s essays (most of which had been previously published) written between 1953 and 1981, entitled The Primacy of Persons and the Language of Culture.
On a temporary basis Poteat taught as Visiting Professor at Stanford University Summer 1970 (two courses entitled “Eroticism, Music, and Madness” and “Religion and Art”), at The University of Texas at Austin for Spring Semester 1971 (a course entitled “Eroticism, Music, and Madness”), and at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (a Junior Honors Seminar for 3 consecutive years in that same decade, to which he commuted amidst his regular teaching duties at Duke).
After retirement, he taught courses without charge in the adult education program at Athens College (a part of the State University of New York system) in Greece, where his wife, Patricia Poteat, served as president from 1994 to 1999.
In 1968 a group of Poteat’s graduate students (some still in residence, some already teaching) gathered in a retreat setting at Fort Caswell, SC, to share in the intellectual friendship that they had enjoyed under his guidance and mentorship and to discuss some of the many issues he had posed for them to think about.
This group continued to meet for several years for an approximately annual retreat that Poteat joined in 1969, at a retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. The group identified itself by a number of names, from “the Poteat Bunch” and “Cosa Nostra della Poteat” and “The Dutch Creek Falls Symposium” (near where they met in the mountains). The last meeting was in 1975. Remarkably, it exhibited a quality of post-critical intellectual life—in contrast with the hyper-critical intellectual life typifying modern academic culture—celebrated in Polanyi’s writing and underscored by Poteat, namely “conviviality.” The group self-consciously saw itself as constituting a “convivial order.”
The Rev. Mr. William Bretiman of Goldsboro and a good friend is quoted in Poteat’s obituary: “One of Bill’s favorite words was ‘convivial,’ and he was a convivial man. He knew that it is our conviviality, our enjoyment of our own and others’ lives, that marks us . . .”
After an extended illness, William H. Poteat died of congestive heart failure in Durham, NC, at his home on May 17, 2000, where he had lived since 1985 (except for ’94-’99 when he was in Greece with his second wife Patricia).
A memorial service for him was held in Duke University Chapel on May 24, 2000, where three generations of his students gathered to honor him. At his death his attending physician called him “a true prince of life.”
He was later to arrange an exhibition for Moustakas’s sculpture and visual art back at Duke University Gallery of Art from March 8 to May 3, 1970.[ii]
Vangelis Moustakas Orpheus and Eurydice 1968
Poteat with Moustakas for the Exhibition at Duke 1970
April 19, 1919
Kaifeng, Honan, China
May 17, 2000 (aged 81)
Cartesianism as an explicit philosophical doctrine is virtually without effect in this culture.
It functions however at a tacit level like a repetition compulsion ...
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